Executive of this topic, the socio-demographic profile of the


In this essay, we will talk about participatory democracy.
First of all, we will focus on the different origins of participatory
governance as well as the protest movements that have grown in recent years and
express the will of people to change the face of the current policies that are
losing some field.

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We will then deal with the theoretical offer of
participatory democracy and its real impact on the population. On the basis of
two articles dealing with this theme, we will see that the active participation
of the people in the political debate is defined by different characteristics
such as real knowledge of the people about participatory democracy and politics
in general, the perception (positive or negative) of this topic, the
socio-demographic profile of the responder or the way in which the opportunity
is offered to participate in an exercise of participatory democracy.

Finally, we conclude by saying that participatory
democracy is an interesting alternative to classical democracy (although it
also has its limits) and that the population (or a part of it) is ready to
participate under certain conditions. .


Today, all Western democracies are run by representative
governments where voters vote to delegate power to political leaders. However,
it has not always been like this. Indeed, many works by historians and
ethnologists on the origins of democracy show that unanimous decision-making or
consensus has been the preeminent mode of collective decision-making during
almost the whole history of human societies.

For example, the Navacho Indians do not know the
notion of representative government. Their heritage and oral traditions have
led them to continue to make their decisions in community and to stop them only
when unanimity has been gathered. The same was true for the village communities
of black Africa or for the medieval Germanic populations. In short, the vote
remains relatively new from a historical point of view.

Moreover, recent events show that contemporary society
has a feeling of mistrust and a lack of interest in the political issue and at
the same time seems to be promoting a return of the latter to the center of
public debate. Whether they are the Indignados Spaniards, Occupy Wall Street or
the movement “Nuit Debout”, all invite to re-capture the public
squares in order to materialize their rejection of the rulers – they consider
illegitimate – and to recreate a citizen dialogue.

If it seems to have the wind in its sails, the
democratic deliberative system is still unknown to the general public. In
general, investigations have shown that people involved in protest movements
are more likely to promote this system. A study done by Harvard University
attempts to qualify the theoretical demand for deliberative democracy and the
propensity to engage in it in a practical way.

In line with this survey, we will attempt during this essay
to draw – critically – the link between the hypothetical interest that people
can have in deliberative governance and the real effects it haves in a
practical way.

methodology and sources

For a number of years, the traditional system of
representative democracy has faltered. Indeed, citizens are turning away from
the public life of the city. This has resulted in a steep drop in the number of
political party members in Europe. This declining trend applies to the entire
European continent. Alternatives to the traditional system are numerous and, as
an example, we cite above the recent movements of Indignés but we could also
mention the G1000, in Belgium, or the collective “Tout autre chose”. These
different social initiatives of citizen initiative intend to “democratize
democracy”. It is to serve this purpose that they advocate the systematic
use of debate and consultation.

The starting point of this work is an article entitled
“Can participatory democracy
convince people to participate ?” This hypothesis raises the following
question: “Is the population really ready to participate more actively in
democratic life? “.

Our research question will focuses on the opinion of
individuals with regard to deliberative democracy as well as their
confrontation with a concrete offer of participation. Thanks Harvard Kennedy
School and its study called “Who wants
to deliberate – and why?” it will be possible to highlight the
significant gap between individuals who are in favor of participatory
democracy, theoretically, and those who are willing to take part in a real
proposal for participation.

The main assumption here is that among the individuals
presented as being in favor of this type of decision-making (participative
democracy), the majority of them will be likely to refuse a concrete proposal
for deliberation.

Based on the previously cited articles, the objective
of this essay will be to try to find out more precisely why some people do not
prefer to take part of this new type of initiative. Is the concept of
participative governance not mature enough ? Are people really aware of what is
participative democracy ? Are people really ready to take part of something of
this magnitude ? Here are some questions we will try to answer on the following


The rise of forms of participatory and deliberative
democracy has provoked the revival of a more than pertinent question: is the
population really ready to participate more actively in democratic life ?

The first thing to precise is to say that it exists two
different points of view in the literature. While most of people could think
that there is a need from the population for more deliberative/participative
process, some studies are at the opposite, trying to assert that people do not
need this kind of process. The first study shows us that in reality,
individuals would prefer a model of democracy in which the citizen can stay
away from public affairs, because of the virtuous and responsible nature of
decision-makers. This type of democracy has been defined as “stealth
democracy” by John Hibbing and Elisabeth Theiss-Morse (2002). A
“good” democratic system would therefore be a system that does not
excessively solicit public participation. The authors support their reflection
by saying that right now, the population aspires to intervene only in case of
serious system failure, and tolerates little more than a few marginal direct
voting devices.

On the other way, the second study conducted by Shaun
Bowler, Todd Donovan and Jeffrey Karp (2007) is focused on obtaining a set of
correlations to understand the need for this new type of policy. The results of
this survey are twofold. First of all, there is a distinction between the
desire to have more opportunities for participation and the real desire to
participate in a referendum. It seems that citizens wanting more opportunities
are those who are the most active and confident in the current political
system. The latter would consider more than others to take part in a direct

Even though citizens seem to be demanding more
opportunities to express an opinion, there is nothing to confirm that this
desire is reflected in concrete political commitment. Indeed, the main concern
of citizens is to “watch” the abuses of the government more than a
real desire to overturn decision-making. In fact, the population supports the
use of referendums not because of the attraction of the device, but because of
its mistrust of political elites.

It has been found that in order to really generate a
request for participation, the offer must appear to be serious. More than a
hypothetical referendum, interviewees must be confronted with a concrete and
operational offer of deliberation. Then, and only then, will it be possible to
“measure” their willingness to participate, since it is only when
citizens have the evidence that leaders intend to strengthen democracy, that
they wish to participate more actively: the more they trust, the more they want
to participate.

It is also interesting to analyze people’s knowledge
and perception of participatory democracy. On the basis of an opinion poll
conducted in France, two central questions were asked: “Are the population
aware of these devices? And “How is this offer of participation perceived
by those who know it? ”

The answers thus make it possible to distinguish three
distinct profiles of individuals, who differ in their relation to the offer of

– The first profile can be assimilated to the citizen
described by the theory of stealth democracy (discreet democracy): Individuals
with this profile perceive the offer of participation as a manipulation, and
have an exclusively negative opinion.

– The second profile: individuals perceive the setting
up of devices as a progress, an exclusively positive phenomenon. This is what
we will call the deliberative profile.

– The third profile gathers all the individuals having
no specific opinion. It mixes negative and positive responses. This is what we
will call the hesitant profile.

The answers gathered for the first question show that
participatory democracy is known by 48% of respondents, which shows a certain
popularity of the term even if the majority of respondents (52%) still declare
their lack of knowledge. However, only 8% of individuals connect this knowledge
to an existing device. The analysis of the content of the answers pushes to
relativize a little more this knowledge of the offer of participation. Indeed,
among the individuals claiming to know participatory democracy approaches, 33%
of them do not actually mention any device or cite non-institutional
experiences. The overall trend revealed by the survey remains indisputable:
only 17% of individuals who know participatory democracy can accurately
identify one or more effective participatory approaches.

Then, on the question of the sociological profile of
“experts”, the results reveal that the most “aware” publics
of the existence of an offer of participation are among the most affluent and
most educated categories. In other words, the higher the political knowledge,
the more individuals are able to cite specific experiences of participatory
democracy. In other words, participative democracy is essentially known by the
more “privileged” individuals that have material resources,
availabilities or substantial qualifications. The knowledge of participatory
democracy is therefore stronger among individuals with prior knowledge of the
political game and thus favorable social conditions.

This hypothesis is reinforced by the words of Annick
Percheron. In fact, according to the sociologist, political innovation is
favorably perceived by “groups with a high socio-professional status, with
a high degree of diploma, with a high level of education and interest in
politics” (Percheron 1991, p.401). ). The most attentive individuals to
political innovations would therefore be the most sensitive to participatory
democracy. Finally, participatory democracy is essentially approved by an
audience already strongly committed to representative democracy: activists and
attentive spectators of the political game with a good knowledge of these
mechanisms. The overrepresentation of certain categories of participants,
already heavily involved in politics, is a recurring finding in the analyzes of
participatory devices

The conclusion of this survey thus leads to the
conclusion that the individuals surveyed are still very largely unaware of the
very existence of the participatory mechanisms and, among the initiates, there
is still doubt about the political meaning of participative democracy. Even if
significant proportions of this public of experts consider it favorably, the
results lead to think that the participative democracy interests only a public
already attentive to the political stakes and which is however never fully
acquired to him. This weak demand can hardly be interpreted as the global sign
of widespread political apathy. However, with regard to active participation
schemes, the recognition of a limited social demand is a warning against the
capacity to “provoke” participation.

Finally, it is also interesting to focus on the
results obtained by researchers at Harvard University. The latter focused on
testing the impact of an offer of participation made to citizens. Two types of
offer are then tested: a real offer and an imaginary offer. Their results are
double. Regarding the imaginary offer, a large majority of respondents (83%)
express the wish to participate. Regarding the actual offer, 75% of individuals
accept the invitation and 35% of these volunteers actually show up on the day
indicated. Although these proportions are described as significant by
researchers, it is important to highlight the significant gap between the
theoretical interest and the actual implementation of the offer.

Surprisingly, an interesting result here is that
people in the group of the stealth democracy have a large significant and
positive effect on the willingness to participate whereas we rather expect the
reverse given their negative judgment on the subject.

comparison, conclusion and limits

First, it is important to emphasize that the analysis
of such studies is rather complicated. Indeed, the latter are complex and are
based on multiple factors, some of which are not present in our writing in
order to be more clear and concise.

Following the analysis, different lessons can be
learned. First, it appears that two theories are opposed on the subject: the
first on is telling us that the population is not in need for such types of
project. On the basis of the research question, it was therefore not
interesting to dig deeper into this point of view knowing that it was exactly
the opposite opinion that interested us.

Then, before even considering whether or not people
are willing to participate, it was interesting to discover that a very large
majority of respondents did not know what participative democracy was. Those
claiming to know what it is, however, were not necessarily able to identify a
mechanism relative to participative democracy. Based on this observation, we
can already say that it would be more than relevant to raise awareness of this
kind of mechanisms and make them more popular so that everyone has an exact
knowledge of what it is. This could have a positive effect on people’s desire
for participation.

Among the individuals who identify participatory
democracy, three types of profiles have emerged. Those with a favorable opinion
of this kind of initiative, those with a negative opinion (stealth democracy)
and finally those with a mixed opinion. Among the group with a positive
opinion, it is important to emphasize that most of them are part of a social
class with high intellectual skills and belonging to a rather privileged social
class. Furthermore, the results obtained on the question “Why people did not
want to participate in the exercise shows us that the main reasons (42%) is
because people think they do not know enough to participate. This confirms that
this type of experience is rather reserved for a certain class. The other big
reason is simply that people are too busy to participate. This does not give
much space to disadvantaged classes to participate in the process.

To conclude, we can say that participatory democracy
can be a good alternative to current policies and it may try to restore faith
to a part of the population that has been neglecting this milieu for a very
long time. However, we must be realistic about the impact that this may have.
Indeed, in this type of consultation, it is often question of validating
decisions that have been already taken or that have little importance.
Participatory democracy produces only modest changes in power relations and in
the distribution of resources.

Moreover, beyond a theoretical offer of participation,
it is more than essential to propose concrete and real offers of participation
to the population in order to motivates them to take effectively part in
debates. This is the only way to measure the real interest for this type of

It is also important to remember that this offer only
seems to appeal to a part of the population already initiated to this kind of
practices or to politics in a more general way. The results also show the
significant interest of those who are not convinced by this kind of practices.
The people who are ready to take part in this kind of participative debate
would be precisely those who have turned their backs on classical political
parties and are tired of these political groups. (Stealth group). So finally,
it would be interesting to simplify this kind of initiative and to educate the
population on these deliberative mechanisms so that participatory democracy can
reaches a wider audience.